LISTS: Top 5 Japanese Cars of the 1980s

Top 5 Japanese of the 80s

While America was overcoming their malaise of the previous decade and Europe was doing a fantastic job catering to the 1%, a third option found it's way into the American lexicon. The Japanese automobile. Japanese cars had been around in America since the 1950's but with The Malaise of the 70's the Japanese imports began to find their way into American households in large numbers for the first time. Like the rise of the mammals over dinosaurs after the Cretaceous Paleogene extinction event, The 70's saw the once great giants of American muscle cars lose ground to the more nimble Japanese cars.

Even after no shortage of racing wins and positive reviews from nearly every outlet, it wasn't until the 1980's that the Japanese began to be taken seriously. The Japanese gained notoriety when America was struggling to make 200 HP with massive V8 engines and they found themselves at the forefront of technological advancement. While some cars like the RX-7 Turbo II, produced mammoth power, most of these cars concentrated on a better driving experience. High revving engines, nimble suspension and high-tech features for a reasonable price drove the Japanese rise to glory.

We're running a poll on the MNCEC Facebook group and here are your Top 5 Best Japanese Cars of the 1980's as chosen by you at time of writing.


AW11 MR2 Promotional

Honorable Mention: Toyota MR2 AW11

The original AW11 generation of the Toyota MR2 (Midship Runabout 2-seater) takes our pick for the Honorable Mention category because it perfectly encompasses the "better than the sum of it's parts" feeling which made the Japanese so successful. Other cheap MR (Mid-engine RWD) cars had been released in the 80s but they never went over well, meanwhile the MR2 was an instant hit. All the cheap 4-cylinder MR cars looked more-or-less the same on paper, so why was the MR2 so well praised? Driver's feel. Toyota parts bin engineered the AW11 from existing Toyota platforms and concentrated on 3 aspects, reliability, fit-and-finish, and driving feel. Under the hood (trunk) of the MR2, sat Toyota's new 1.6L 4A-GE 4-cylinder engine. While most people only know the 4A-GE as being the engine that famously powered Takumi Fujiwara's AE86 in Initial D, they don't know much beyond that. It was actually an extremely high tech engine at the time of release, electronic fuel injection with a DOHC head and variable intake runners mated to an iron block created 112 HP at 6,600 RPM with room for more power as well. Car and Driver magazine took it for a 30,000 mile extended road test assuming the car would fall to pieces until they learned that Toyota was untouchable. Short of some destroyed tires from excessive hooning nothing broke, despite their best attempts. Automobile magazine also did a comparison test with it against a Ferrari 308 assuming an obvious winner and their tests came back with results praising the MR2 for it's fun feel, reliability and bargain price.

The key was driving feel, the car wanted to be driven to it's limits. With 112 HP, a super short shifter and a curb weight of 2,282 lbs, the car could be driven to the driver's limit and made them a better driver before the car itself reached it's limit. While it is not fast by any means in stock form, it feels like an extension of your body when you're driving it. In my experience, having owned one, the AW11 was second to none. Even my surprisingly clean $500 1985 model felt absolutely perfect minus short of a worn out window switch but nothing leaked or rattled. It's mid-mounted engine gave it a slightly rear biased weight distribution and it felt like you would have unlimited traction, especially with modern tires on it. Although I only experienced the very first year of production, in subsequent years the AW11 would only improve. For suspension, sway bars would be modified to account for a slight understeer and later oversteer when driven at it's limit. The 4A-GE "big port" head would be replaced with the "small port" greatly increasing mid-range power without hampering top end output. Then in 1987, they decided to add a 145 HP 4A-GZE powered Supercharged variant. The addition in power would of been equivalent to if they made turbocharged 86/BRZ today. Frankly, the AW11 MR2 perfectly encompasses what every "sporty" car should try to attain, if you ever get the chance to drive one I highly recommend it.

5.)Nissan Skyline R31

Surprisingly during an era when the straight-6 engine was really in it's prime, our top 5 list only has one car utilizing a proper 6 cylinder under it's hood. So naturally, if were going to have just one L6 engine on this list, it had better be a cracker. The R31 Skyline does not disappoint in that category, given that this was the very first chassis ever to be graced with the venerable RB series engine. While it's surrounding generations are significantly more famous, the R30 is known in Japan as the car from 1980's TV detective show Seibu Keisatsu and naturally the R32 GT-R needs no introduction. What the R31 offered was the groundwork which lead to the GT-R's return. It pioneered the RB series engine, introduced HICAS 4-wheel steering and continued where the R30 left off kicking ass at touring car racing. In addition to being made in it's traditional plant located in Musashimurayama, Japan, the R31 was the only Skyline produced outside of Japan with it's plant in Clayton, Australia. Because of this second plant, the car is still beloved by Australians. They even had their own special models like the Pintara and the Silhouette trim levels. The new RB engine was night and day more advanced than the old L-series leftover from the 60s, even the smallest non-turbo RB engine made the same amount of power as the old turbocharged L-series. When Nissan did introduce the turbo RB series, it first came in the Skyline GT Passage Turbo wagon. Yes, Nissan is that cool they offered their wagon as a manual, turbocharged wagon right off the bat. In 1987 they released a 800 car limited run homologation car titled the GTS-R, carefully playing around the legendary GT-R name.


Nissan recused themselves from using the GT-R name due to the meaning of it. When the first fuel crisis hit the world in 1973, Nissan discontinued their GT-R as opposed to hobbling it with emissions and fuel saving band aids. The name had a legendary status to it, tagging a GT-R name on a car that wasn't 100% deserving would of been sacrilege. Since the GT-R name was taboo, Nissan got as close as possible by making the GTS-R nameplate. The 2.0L RB20 engine block was clad with a DOHC cylinder head and a tubular exhaust manifold feeding an intercooled turbo setup netting 210 HP. Remember that the Iroc Z was getting everyone's praises in America making about the same power on a chassis that weighed over a quarter-ton more. For countries like Australia where both cars were available, the R31 was considered a modern legend. The R31 also had a storied racing pedigree second only to the hakosuka GT-R, most of it's wins came from Australian touring car racing but it was successfully piloted in other series as well. Back in Japan, tuning house Tommy Kaira chose the R31 as it's first complete modified car they offered for sale. Known as the Tommy Kaira M30, it featured a stroked out NA 3.0L RB engine which created a, mindblowing at the time, 240 HP at 7,000 RPM. Today the R31 still receives no shortage of love in Japan as tuning shop R31 House specializes in performance and restoration parts for this single chassis. The most important aspect of the R31 was it's significant leap towards what would become the Skyline GT-R. Despite existing in the shadows of the GT-R, the R31 is not a car to sleep on and firmly deserves a spot in our Top 5.

4.)Toyota Corolla AE86

Queue Initial D music here. Jokes aside, the AE86 is the poster boy for both drift racing and the Japanese Neo-Classic movement. Throughout the early 2000s the AE86 was nearly hunted to extinction, Ben Hsu from has been famously quoted as saying "There are fewer Stock, good-conditionCorolla GT-Ses left than Ferrari Enzos." To the uninitiated, the AE86 Corolla was just an old Toyota, but theres more to it than that. In the mid-1980s Toyota was evolving their people movers to FWD platforms but with the Corolla it took just a little longer because while the sedan and wagon was FWD, the sportier coupe and hatch were RWD. There were two trim levels for the RWD Corolla (in America) which were the SR5 and the GT-S, available in both hatch or coupe form. The SR5 came with a carbureted 4A-C and optional automatic transmission, but the more sought-after GT-S was appointed with the same 4A-GE as the AW11 MR2 we mentioned above. While a live rear axle and 112 HP may not sound like anything noteworthy at all, add that it only weighed 2,381 lbs, was mated with all wheel disc brakes and wasn't much more money than the average Corolla, and you suddenly get a really slick package. The car likes to be driven to it's limits and it's entry cost meant that everyone could afford the car, so naturally it saw extensive use in touring car racing. In Japan, a class of touring car racing called N1, which was essentially a lightly modified street car class, was dominated by the AE86. In America though, it's meager power output allowed it to fall into obsolescence rather quickly in a country where drag racing and left turn good ol' boy racing was popular. For those who had their ear to the ground, or rather, their nose buried into manga books in 1995, the AE86 held a special significance as the protagonist's weapon of a new series called Initial D. This manga/anime series about mountain touge racing combined with the trickle of videos from Japan of people drifting AE86s around the tight mountain roads created an underground movement for drift racing. By 2002, drift racing moved from parking lots and California canyon roads to a legitimate racing series called Formula Drift. 

Once drift racing went mainstream in America, the AE86 was poached nearly to extinction for exactly what made it obsolete in the first place, it's cheap lightweight RWD chassis. By the late 2000s, the undiscovered mint AE86 was about as likely of a barn find as a Dusenberg was. Conveniently enough, the bar was raising in professional drifting and a 200 HP build wasn't cutting it any more so hacking up an RX7 or a 240 was the more common route. The damage was done though, the old used car sales addage of "they don't make new used cars" meant that at this point most of the best examples of AE86s were either destroyed or heavily modified. When you combine the premium price people looking for a track car were willing to pay (ie: drift tax) with the amount a perspective collector was willing to put down, the car began to balloon in price. Today an automatic carbureted SR5 coupe goes for more than even the best GT-S would of been at the turn of the millenium. This does not stop people from building them though, the allure of the chassis is too strong. Combine the aftermarket, which is still strong today, with all of the small variations the factory had between international markets and top it off with the driving feel and you have one of the best driver's cars ever produced.

Mitsubishi Starion Promo

3.) Mitsubishi Starion/Chrysler Conquest

Today Mitsubishi is deep into it's 9 year old self induced malaise powered by comically poor corporate management which includes but is not limited to: Being bought out due to a Volkswagen-esque fuel economy scandal; pulling popular models from market despite customer input; hiring West Coast Customs to make a replica of their 1917 Mitsubishi Model A; and reviving their most beloved sports car as a crossover. It seems everything with the Mitsubishi name has had horrible news, even Mitsubishi UFJ was caught laundering money for the Yakuza in 2013. It wasn't always this way though, Mitsubishi at one point was a powerful up and coming conglomerate which was the key to Chrysler treading water through The Malaise prior to Lee Iacocca (god bless him) introducing the K-car. In fact, their original halo car was good enough to make the Top 5 Japanese cars of the 1980s. The Mitsubishi Starion was launched in 1982 during a time of excess for the Japanese public which saw a balloon of really great GT cars from every manufacturer from Isuzu to Toyota. It's timing could have not been more perfect for Mitsubishi Motors North America, which had just officially launched and needed a fresh halo car to get the American public talking. What better a halo car than a rear wheel drive, turbocharged, 4-cylinder sports car making more power than a lot of America's golden child V8 engine cars did. For additional 80s eccentricity, Mitsubishi had the word Turbo appear over 100 times on the car, added a digital dashboard and had a standard manual transmission. In 1985, for the mid-model update, they found the only ways to improve the car by adding more power with an intercooled variant producing 197 HP and placed arguably the best looking 5x114.3 OEM wheels of all time behind a set of box flares. This mid-model update took the car to the next level for both aesthetics and performance. As part of their partnership with Chrysler, Mitsubishi provided the Starion to be rebadged into the Chrysler Conquest.

The name Conquest could not have been a better fit as throughout it's production the chassis took home a wealth of trophies. Modified versions of the RWD road car won various SCCA endurance races and took home wins in touring car championships around the world. Towards the end of the decade a Starion 4WD car was developed for Group B before the series was cancelled but that didn't stop it from taking home a prolific amount of rally wins in any category they could shoehorn it into then. This car was the direct predecessor to everything awesome Mitsubishi did in the 1990s: the DSMs, 3000GT/Stealths and the Lancer Evolutions. For those in the know this is a great project car that tends to fly under the collector radar. The speculators in the collector community site the storied racing pedigree and how well it looks the part of the era. Meanwhile those who want to build their own car note that the 4G63 was under the hood of these in certain markets. Regardless of what you're going to use the Starion for, it's a great choice and that's why it earned it's 3rd place spot on our list. 

EF Japanese Nostalgic Car

2.) Honda Civic/CRX EA/EF 

One of the all time greatest automotive underdog stories is the story of the Honda Civic. Honda could of easily made the Civic into a forgettable people mover since it was dirt cheap, but through a combination of over-engineering, parts-bin manufacturing and clever design they made something frankly, magical. It's one of those cars that, despite any word choice, can't be fully appreciated until a good example is driven. While the first two generations of Civic were great, when they released the EA generation in September 1983 it started a trend which elevated the Civic into a giant-beater. The 3rd generation Civic, known as the "EA" generation or Wonder Civic, was surprisingly nimble despite utilizing a neolithic torsion bar suspension design in the front and rear. They made a point to have every body style have a special variant even the humble wagon received an interesting trim level called an RT4WD Wagovan which had an innovative AWD system. The most noteworthy addition they added to match the lightweight nimble chassis, they released a sportier trim level called an Si with this generation. While in America, we only received the direct port fuel injection SOHC D15A3 which made 91 HP, the Japanese home market was given the ZC1 DOHC 1.6L engine which made 122 HP. Given that, shy of cars like the Corolla FX16, most subcompact hatchbacks made under 100 HP in the era, the EA felt like a rocketship and immediately gained a cult following. It's wins in Super Taikyu racing by Spoon and Motul/Mugen against cars such as the Starion and AE86 Levin only bolstered it's cult following among Japanese enthusiasts. Honda also released a fastback variant called a CRX which utilized all of the drivetrain of the Civic chassis but had a lighter and stiffer body to it. The first generation of CRX was made famous for its racing pedigree. It's pedigree in America started with Mugen importer King Motorsports of Wisconsin for their campaign in SCCA racing. However, it's most important part of it's racing history was started by SoCal drag racers like Myles Bautista who used it to pioneer a host of groundbreaking achievements for import drag racing.

The next generation, known as the EF or Grand Civic, would take the Civic to even higher levels. The space saver torsion bars gave way to Honda's Formula 1 derived double wishbone and trailing arm suspension setup. This suspension setup made Honda famous throughout the world for their handling characteristics as it allowed each wheel much more movement before the camber of the tire would affect handling. To match the suspension was the added power, gone were the carburetors from the American market base model, and the now standard throttle body injection D15B2 made even more power than the previous Si model. For our new Si model, it stayed with port fuel injection which but, for the first time in America, made 3 digits of power at 108 HP (105 HP in 1988). Although 108 HP isn't news worthy, the Japanese did receive a new trim level called the SiR in 1989. The key feature of the SiR was the 100 HP/Liter DOHC B16 which powered the Civic to a plethora of touring car victories. It took the American market a few years to learn of the existence of this engine but once it was discovered, those drag racers in SoCal we mentioned before got to work figuring out how to shoehorn it into our cars. Once the process of swapping the engines between cars was perfected it lead to a golden age of import drag racing and FWD performance. Racers such as Bisi Ezerioha, Ed Bergenholtz, and many others began setting and breaking records in drag racing. By the end of the 1990's single digit 1/4 mile times were being had by privateer teams. Much like the story of DeLorean's downfall or the racing pedigree of the E30, we could write an entire article about the EF Civic and the continuing story of import drag racing. While the EA was a great first leap towards greatness, the EF Civic perfected the brew with double wishbone suspension, parts interchangability with almost every Honda around and an affordable entry price. When you combine all of that with a racing pedigree to boot, you can see why a lowly economy car ranked so high in our list.

1.) Mazda RX7 FC

While the first generation RX7 replaced Datsun's S30 (240/260/280Z) Z-car chassis as the defacto affordable sports car, the second generation FC-chassis RX7 would improve on it's roots in every way. The SA22C/FB was a pure sports car but the FC offered the same rotary performance on a much more refined and modernized level. Mazda looked to improve the RX7 across the board, so they took suspension technology introduced in the 323 and 626 models, offered standard fuel injection, had an optional turbo and they stuck computers on everything they could find. Although first implemented on the FB's GSL-SE trim level, Mazda improved upon it's electronic fuel injection allowing the 1.3L rotary engine to produce power on par with what American V8s produced. Computers even made it to the active suspension which adjusted dampening based off driving conditions and the power steering was computer controlled as well. As opposed to the old reciprocating ball power steering found in the FB, the FC totally skipped a traditional power steering and went directly to computer controlled electric power steering. The best part is, when compared to today's horrifically over assisted electric power steering, this made the car feel perfect at all times. Speaking of perfect, the bodylines are like a Van Gogh painting. At first, it looks like nothing special, then as you look at it more, you begin to appreciate the little nuances to it's design. The shape of the oversized window frame on the door, the rear hatch shape and even the tail lights all come together for a timeless design inspired by a spaceship from the near future.

The car wasn't all looks and gizmos either, it had an extremely impressive racing pedigree which dominated the IMSA GTO class with the Audi 90 quattro until the class rules were changed to outlaw foreign engines and AWD. Any car that has a pedigree of winning until it's outlawed is always a good collector's investment. To top off that pedigree, the Mid Night Club and other racers in the Tokyo Wangan street racing culture embraced this chassis for it's superb handling and relentless power building capabilities. Famous Mid Night Club members and Mazda tuning house RE-Amemiya utilize the FC to date to make their creations. Stateside, Racing Beat used an FC RX-7 to reset their land speed record to 238.442 MPH for their respective class. All of this and we haven't even mentioned it's pedigree it got in drift racing after gaining notoriety as the car driven by Ryosuke Takahashi in Initial D. Needless to say if there is a way to drive it in anger, the FC RX7 had done it and succeeded, that's why this car get's the number 1 spot.